#7: Timer tricks

Procrastinators have long known that setting a timer can help bust through tasks. Whether it’s FlyLady setting a timer for 15 minutes to throw away trash, Merlin Mann advocated doing a “dash” to beat procrastination, the two-minute rule of David Allen’s GTD (Getting Things Done), or writers “sprinting” during NaNoWriMo, using a timer gives lots of us a push to really get things done.

The current biggest fad in timer-based productivity is the Pomodoro technique, named after a tomato timer apparently. I’ve used the pomodoro technique off and on. The essence of the pomodoro technique is to use a 25 minute timer for a stretch of work, followed by a mandatory short break (3-5 minutes). After four pomodors you take a longer break. You also track the pomodoros you spend on tasks, potentially helping you get better at estimating your time. There is also a discipline to using the pomodoro technique because you are not allowed to split or pause a pomodoro. If a distraction comes up you write it down and keep going on your original task. If you stop to address something, you have to start the pomodoro again and it doesn’t “count.”

The pomodoro technique isn’t my favorite because I don’t like the fixed time of 25 minutes, both because it isn’t a nice chunk of time (it is a very awkward fraction of an hour — I prefer 5, 10, 15, 20, or 30 minute chunks) and because I find I really need to vary the time that I use depending on my mood and the task at hand. If I really am dreading a task I need a 5 minute timer. I’ll never do it if I have to spend 25 minutes. On the other hand, if I am really into a task there is no way that I am taking that break. It doesn’t really work that well for me because I find I need something with variable times.

I have, however, used a lot of pomodoro timers. Most of them let you set variable times instead having to stick with 25 minutes. The best ones keep track of the number of pomodoros you spend on your various tasks. Pomodairo and Focus Booster are both pretty good ones that I have used. While I love the idea of tracking the time I spend on various projects and tasks, I’ve never been really happy with any of the ways I have found to do the tracking. These days if I need a timer, I tend to use 30/30, which gives me lots of flexibility to set up different repeating timers and routines.

#6: A Spoonful of Music

It was just after I turned 30 that I started making playlists that got me out of bed and moving. I just finished recreating one that I used for a long time on Spotify (and you will simply have to forgive the fake Beatles since you can’t get real Beatles on Spotify). I made a number of these playlists and would typically associate each song with specific actions, like getting out of bed, eating breakfast, taking a shower, or brushing teeth. I also made specific playlists for things like working on my dissertation or doing household chores.

When my daughter was maybe 2 or 3 I wanted to do the same thing for her and found Childrens Miracle Music, which was the same thing only for kids. It had a little more religion than I would like, but it turned chores into the game, and in fact became known as “The Game” in our house. The game came with a chore chart and a happy voice telling everyone what to do next and how many songs we had to complete the next task. Beating the music was great motivation and the music kept the atmosphere fun. We used the game for a while, then stopped using it, and then later started again and I added my own voiced instructions and new songs. Eventually we decided to stop the game and move onto other systems, largely because the game required all of us to work at the same pace on the same chores, but I wouldn’t be surprised if chore playlists pop up again in our house in the future.

# 5: FVP by Mark Forster

Over the last couple of years I have played with several systems developed by Mark Forster. Currently, I am using Final Version Perfected (FVP), or at least my own version of it. Briefly, my own version of this system involves having a list of things I might do during a day (pulled from a larger master list that is never, of course, fully comprehensive). I start with the first item on the list and put a little circle next to that item. Then I move down the list, asking myself with each new task I hit, “What do I want to do (for five minutes) before I do the item marked above?” If there is something I want to do more, I put a little circle next to that item and then I go down the rest of the list asking “What do I want to do (for five minutes) before I do the most recent item marked above?”. Eventually, there is nothing that I want to do more, and I do the last circled item. If the system interests you, I encourage you to follow the link to read through more examples. I find that even though I have to spend some time just thinking about my list, the process cuts through some of my procrastination as it sometimes seems easier just to do the task rather than to keep thinking about whether I want to do the task! It also gives me an out so that I’m not being forced to do the task, if I’m doing a task, it is because I choose to do it.

Once I have worked on a task (even for just 5 minutes), I can cross it out. If it is not finished, I add it back on to the bottom of the list (or to a list for tomorrow, or to a master list). If something else comes up that I need or want to do, I add that to the bottom of the list, or I add it to my master list if it is not something I want to work on today. Once I have crossed off a task, I go to the marked task above that task, which was the last selected task before the one I just did. I can then ask if anything below that ask is something I now want to do for five minutes before this new current marked task, repeating the whole system again.

The biggest trouble I have with this system is having a list that is too long. If the list is long, I might never cycle around to the beginning of it again! So I try to stick with lists of a tractable size, but that’s very difficult for me.

Two scenes, one woman worried about her teeth, other woman happy with teeth

4. Floss-a-Tooth

This post is a revision of something I wrote some time ago on another blog, and that was a revision of something I had written previously in a zine I made called “FoolProof.” So this is a system I developed that has been with me for a long time, but I still forget about it constantly and I’m trying to make it a bigger part of my life now.

About 15 years ago, I had an oral hygiene problem. It had been ten years since I had been to a dentist. I regularly went for weeks (yes, weeks) without brushing my teeth. My oral hygiene was pathetic and I have the cavities and root canals to show for it. I had been trying for some time to improve the situation. I had made resolutions, put notes on the mirror, and scolded myself. Intermittently, I seem to have become convinced that the reason for my failure was that my oral hygiene system wasn’t complicated enough, so I would go out and purchase plaque rinses, tablets for detecting plaque, special toothpicks, and fancy toothbrushes. Each new thing was exciting. I loved opening the packages, reading the directions, and dreaming about getting a special tooth-brushing award from a dentist. But aside from providing fodder for my overactive imagination, each new gimmick or plan failed after my initial enthusiasm diminished.

I finally found a way to start brushing, and here’s what worked:

  • Phase One: For a week or two, I put toothpaste on my toothbrush and stuck it in my mouth every night. That was it. I started with just the evening and just with this small and, frankly, stupid task. This is the heart of the method: to make the goal small enough that I couldn’t put up any resistance. How hard is it to put toothpaste on a toothbrush? It only takes one second! I stayed in this phase until the routine was well established and I no longer felt any resistance.
  • Phase Two: In this phase I did just a little bit of brushing (perhaps 30 seconds) in the evenings only. With the groundwork from the first phase, this was fairly easy; I was already used to loading up the toothbrush and sticking it in my mouth. I did this for another couple of weeks. At some point I decided to add a morning brushing time as well, and I started back at phase one with that habit. The important thing is not pushing too hard, staying just under the threshold of resistance, and doing it every day.
  • Phase Three. During this phase I worked my way up to 2-3 minutes of brushing morning and evening. I made my increases small, and if I met resistance or skipped a night, I backed up to where I was more comfortable.
  • Safety-Net: One of the things that often derailed my oral hygiene efforts in the past was handling “falling off the wagon.” For instance, suppose you are trying to brush your teeth every night, but one night you come home late and just want to fall into bed. The trouble is that if you do that, you’ll be more likely to skip the next night and pretty soon you will have fallen right out of the habit. If you are sorely tempted to skip your good habit just this one time, instead fall back to phase one. If I am tempted to skip brushing, I instead just put toothpaste on my toothbrush and stick it in my mouth. Then I can keep up my commitment and momentum, even under extreme circumstances. If even doing that seems too much to bear, I just go and hold my toothbrush, anything so that I can tell myself the next day that I still have the habit.

You are probably curious about one thing — why do I call this the “Floss-A-Tooth” Method? A professor of mine once told me that if you use a technique just once, then it is a trick, but if you use it twice, it’s a tool. The “Floss a Tooth Method” became a tool, and got its name, upon its second use when I used it to start a flossing habit.

  • Phase One: For a couple of weeks all I did was to pull of a length of floss out every evening. Sometimes this was hard because I felt wasteful, so I only pulled off a small bit.
  • Phase Two: I flossed just one tooth each evening. I had to stay at this phase for quite some time, about 3 or 4 weeks.
  • Phase Three: I flossed a few teeth, a few more, and a few more, until I was doing the whole mouth.
  • Safety-Net: I floss in the evening. If it’s late and I’m tired I probably won’t floss much. In extreme circumstances I’ll just do one tooth. Right now my flossing habit isn’t rock solid, so I am headed back through phases one, two and three again.

In the last seven years, I’ve found the Floss-A-Tooth Method applicable in many other areas of my life. Its usefulness boils down to the fact that when we see a goal we want we tend to rush towards it too fast. For instance, my husband used to have a thesis-writing support group. Each week, people would come in feeling guilty and demoralized. They’d think about all they needed to get done and how quickly it needed to be finished. They’d beat themselves up for all the time they’d wasted in the past week. So they’d set absurd goals for themselves. People who weren’t succeeding in writing anything would claim they were going to write for two hours each day, or get fifteen pages written in the next week.

The key to using Floss-A-Tooth successfully is to decide what you want to do and then find the smallest possible unit that represents progress but that you can’t whine about. If you want to eat more vegetables, how about having one baby carrot with dinner? If you want to save money, do you think you could put a quarter in a piggy bank each day (or even just a dime)? And if you want to run the Boston marathon, you might start by putting on your shoes.

Like every system, it only works when you use it and I admit that floss-a-tooth has I have not been using it. But I broke it back our recently to start meditating. And I found that other people have had this same great idea. I just signed up for a “Tiny Habits” session, which has a similar idea, but also focuses on the trigger (or anchor) that prompts you to do the task. These anchors were a little hard for me, since my life is wrapped up with kids and that makes sequencing hard! I decided to focus on these three things:

  1. AFTER my feet touch the floor in the morning, I will say “It’s going to be a great day.”
  2. AFTER I pee for the last time in the evening I will brush my teeth.
  3. AFTER I open my computer in the morning, I will go to 750words.com.

3. Put Your Hands in the Air

I have an anger management problem that has gotten worse in the last couple of years, and the problem is centered around my kids. I get angry and I stop listening to my better self – some beast underneath seems to take over. Then of course I get angry at myself for being so angry, for storming around and yelling, so then I’m even angrier. I end up just having to get away and that is sometimes hard to do. It’s hard for my more reasonable, kind, and gentle self to re establish control.

I’ve found one plan that is helping me get that control back, just a little. When I start to feel a flash of anger, I simply put my hands in the air. A few things happen when I do this. Number one, I feel like an idiot. Number two, my kids ask me why my hands are in the air, and number three, I really want to get them back down right away. All of these, however, are things different from anger, and that helps.

In the past, I’ve also done push-ups when trying to change a behavior, but that can be difficult in all situations. But even if my hands are full I can get at least get one hand in the air. It gives me a marker of my anger (how many times did I raise my hand today?), an action that I can do to feel more in control, and distraction to help me cool down. It is also a neutral action – it doesn’t reinforce my sense of myself as bad or out of control. It makes me take myself a little less seriously.

2. Meditating

So, right, meditating is really supposed to help. I know this. I even know it does help. For crying out loud, I’ve done a week long silent meditation retreat. But I still don’t do it. Just sitting still for a half hour is a terrible terrible idea. So right now I am invisioning a couch-to-5k program, but for my brain. I start with 1 minute. In this system you meditate every day because that’s good for building a habit. But on two days you can fall back to a much shorter time. The system works like this

Week One:

  • 1 min x 2
  • 2 min x 2
  • 3 min x 2
  • Then back to 1 minute

Week Two:

  • 2 min x 2
  • 4 min x 2
  • 6 min x 2
  • Then back to 2 minutes.

Week Three:

  • 4 min x 2
  • 7 min x 2
  • 10 min x 2
  • Then back to 4 minutes.

Week Four:

  • 7 min x 2
  • 11 min x 2
  • 15 min x 2
  • Then back to 5 minutes.

Week Six and Beyond:

  • 15 minutes x 4
  • 5 minute x 3

If you struggle with a week, just stay on that week the next week, or back up a week if needed.